Human Sacrifice

Topics: Sacrifice, Human sacrifice / Pages: 14 (3275 words) / Published: Jan 4th, 2011
Human Sacrifice: A Brief Introduction


After the dramatic attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, reports admiringly related how firemen ‘sacrificed’ their lives in order to save people, and how many people had become ‘victims’ of this atrocious crime. Both English terms, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘victim’, eventually derive, via the French, from Latin sacrificial language.1 Even though most of us no longer condone or practice animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice, these metaphors are a powerful reminder of the practice of offering animals or humans as gifts to gods and goddesses, a practice that once was near universal, but nowadays becomes increasingly abandoned. Undoubtedly, the most fascinating and horrifying variety of sacrifice remains human sacrifice, and a new collection of studies hardly needs an apology.2 Serious studies are rare in this area where sensation often rules supreme. New approaches to the sources (below), new anthropological insights and new archaeological discoveries, for instance those in ancient India to which Hans Bakker draws to our attention in Ch. IX, all

For Roman sacrifice see most recently Bremmer, ‘Opfer 3: Römische Religion’, in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, fourth edition, vol. 6 (Tübingen, 2003) 578-80; J. Scheid, Quand faire, c’est croire - Les rites sacrificiels des Romains (Paris, 2005). 2 The more so as the most recent overview by K. Read, ‘Human sacrifice’, in the authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion, second edition, vol. 6 (New York, 2005) 4182-85 is wholly unsatisfactory. Much better, I Talo, ‘Menschenopfer’, in Enzyklopädie des Märchens, vol. 9 (Berlin and New York, 1999) 578-82.



enable us to take a fresh look at old problems, but also to start thinking about areas that have long been neglected in this connection, such as ancient China, as Tim Barrett reminds us (Ch. XII). Human sacrifice was sometimes combined with cannibalism. This was the case among the ancient

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